Scents and Sensitivity

How to reconcile a love of gardening with severe fragrance allergies? Sensitivity to certain scents isn’t that unusual, and if it were merely a few things that send my histamine receptors into overdrive it wouldn’t be that bad. I’ve had allergies of one sort or another since birth; the only change over the years has been which ones and how bad. Seriously, you’d think that having gone through childhood being allergic to milk, eggs, wheat, citrus and chocolate – not to mention about two dozen environmental allergens – would have prepared me for anything!

It’s strange how things turn out. As I entered my teen years I outgrew the first three food allergies but then discovered that there was only one perfume that wouldn’t send me into a sneezing, coughing, itchy-eyed fit: Chant d’Aromes by Guerlain. I have no idea what was different about that particular formula but even so, I could only use the lighter ‘cologne’ version. At the same time my mom’s Chanel No.5 became pure olfactory poison. As the decades passed, ultimately everything in my environment needed to be fragrance-free: household cleaners, dishwashing liquid, laundry detergent, moisturizer, soap, sunblock, shampoo, you name it. Cosmetics of any sort had to hit the road also, because even the so-called hypoallergenic ones do have some level of odor, however faint. Finally, a permanent side effect of a year of chemo was that all of my existing allergies and sensitivities were ramped up to an even higher level than they’d ever been before (oh joy).

Complicating my problem is that due to another condition I cannot take any type of non-drowsy allergy medication, so allergen-avoidance has to be my #1 rule whenever possible (a philosophy with which all allergists concur.) I learned fairly quickly that there are certain flowers that are safe for me to have in the house but others will quickly produce misery.

Iris Immortality

Iris ‘Immortality’

For instance, white bearded iris cause no problems whatsoever but the yellow and pink ones start to moderately bother me after about 8-10 hours; perhaps the effect builds up over time. [All of the photos here were taken at my previous house/garden.]

Iris Unstable Gene

Iris ‘Unstable Gene’

However, blue and purple iris are banned from the house because their heavy (to my hypersensitive nose) grape-like fragrance rises to an intolerable level in only an hour or so.

Narcissus Lemon Beauty

Narcissus ‘Lemon Beauty’

Indoor tolerance of narcissi depends entirely on what they are. The fragrance of paperwhites (N. tazetta) literally makes me gag; even if I wasn’t allergic I’d avoid them. Jonquillas are borderline tolerable and as for the rest, pure whites and white-petaled varieties are ‘safe’ but the yellow ones are on a case-by-case basis. The doubles seem to have little or no fragrance and thus are safe. Poeticus, which are among my favorites, are entirely safe to have in the garden but they are problematic for me indoors.

Hyacinth Sky Jacket

Hyacinth ‘Sky Jacket’

Hyacinths are definitely a safe-outdoors/deadly-indoors flower. I will quickly be sneezing my head off in a house where there’s a potted hyacinth but have had multiple groups of them in all my gardens, even planted near the often-opened kitchen window, and I’m fine. Go figure.

mystery Oriental lily

Lilies indoors? Asiatics, yes; Orientals and Trumpets, no; as for the fragrant Asiatic/L. longiflorum hybrids, it depends on the variety. Anthers get trimmed off regardless, because of the pollen-stain problem, but Oriental lilies must also produce fragrance in their petals because the trimming doesn’t much affect the scent of those; the location of fragrance production can vary widely among different kinds of flowers. All lilies are fine in the garden. This photo shows a bonus Oriental that came with an order from Brent & Becky’s Bulbs; it smelled like a French bordello (not that I would know from experience) and heavily perfumed the entire half-acre garden, but I knew better than to ever bring a stem into the house!

Dianthus Inchmery

Dianthus ‘Inchmery’

Dianthus doesn’t even occasion a nose-twitch, either indoors or out – you’d think a scent that strong would knock me for a loop but oddly enough it doesn’t – but for heaven’s sake don’t bring any member of the daisy family into my house. All orchids are 100% safe and so are any of the shockingly-expensive tropicals such as Strelitzia and Banksia (do you think my fragrance sensitivity is cut-flower-price-dependent? Makes one wonder!)

tulips in the kitchen window

Tulips are usually fine; although I can usually detect a very faint scent when passing close by a vase, it rarely triggers anything.

Philadelphus Bouquet Blanc

Philadelphus ‘Bouquet Blanc’

As for roses, well, to be honest I’ve never cared for them as cut flowers and so I haven’t had any in the house for decades; I only had one boyfriend who was inclined/could afford to send me roses, and that was before my allergies really went into high gear. In my previous garden I had the double mock orange Philadelphus ‘Bouquet Blanc’ which you’d think would send any fragrance-sensitive person running for the medicine cabinet, but again the open air and breezes were my friends.

Lonicera fragrantissima

the winter honeysuckle, Lonicera fragrantissima

I grew up loving the scent of honeysuckle and still do, which is why I kept making the maintenance mistake of planting at least one in each garden. Honeysuckle doesn’t bother me in the least (mind over histamine??) which is a very good thing because there’s nothing quite like the lovely scent of Lonicera fragrantissima at the tail end of a hellish winter. It’s too bad that the shrub itself looks so scruffy!

I should mention that there’s a difference between “allergy-friendly” and “fragrance-allergy-friendly”. Many plants fall into one category but not the other; some can be classified as both. But all those articles that talk about low-allergy cut flowers (e.g., for weddings) will only list flowers that are low in pollen… simply because for most people that’s what triggers their allergy. This is why you’ll find daffodils, iris, and certain roses on those allergy-friendly lists, and it’s true that those are low-pollen picks (as are the pollen-free lily varieties). However, because fragrance can be also produced in flower pistils and petals (depending on the plant) a pollen-free ”allergy friendly” flower can still cause misery in a person who is fragrance-sensitive. Roses are a great example: They produce one type of fragrance compound in their pollen, but much higher levels of different fragrance compounds are produced by the petals.

Speaking of cut flowers, one of my very favorites – Eustoma grandiflorum, a/k/a lisianthus – is both low-pollen and fragrance-free. Now if only it wasn’t so darn fussy and tricky to grow from seed…!!!

(September 2021 update: For a look at the fragrance-free products that have become part of my life, check my new post on that subject.)

  11 comments for “Scents and Sensitivity

  1. July 1, 2015 at 2:25 pm

    I am also an allergic kinda gal, asthma, hayfever but not (to my knowledge) any food allergies. People question my choice of career but I just say “it proves how dedicated I am to the cause”! ps I have tried and failed to grow the lovely eustoma in the past, so pleased to hear that it is tricky and I am not inept!

    • July 1, 2015 at 2:58 pm

      My feeling is that if even commercial growers find it frustrating (which is why they’re pricey cut flowers), we at home have nothing to be ashamed of if we have trouble too! 🙂

  2. July 1, 2015 at 2:51 pm

    Wow. How well you cope. That’s got to be the most frustrating thing as a gardener.

    • July 1, 2015 at 2:59 pm

      Luckily I’m usually okay with the flower fragrances outdoors — but when it comes to tree pollen (especially oak) that’s another story! I will be very happy to eventually move out of this oak-stuffed neighborhood, LOL

  3. July 1, 2015 at 4:27 pm

    Awful to be allergic to fragrant flowers. I know what you mean about Paper whites and Hyacinths, I think they smell awful. My son has the same problem as you and when he was young I never brought flowers into the house. He has an incredibly strong sense of smell and it sounds as if you do. I wonder if the allergy and strong sense of smell are connected. I get asthma too but I am hopeless at working out what the triggers are.

    • July 1, 2015 at 4:40 pm

      Oh absolutely, Chloris! I’m practically a “bloodhound” when it comes to any sort of scent or smell. Often what is barely noticeable to others will smell overwhelming to me, and can even make me feel a bit queasy. I’m now used to people responding with a puzzled “What???” when I exclaim “phew!” or “ugh” whilst waving a hand in front of my nose. 🙂 Scented air-fresheners in homes or in stores/malls are also very uncomfortable; thank goodness for online shopping!

  4. July 2, 2015 at 12:51 pm

    I’m so sorry you have to cope with this problem, it sounds awful. If I read you right, though, it sounds like the big problem is when you bring the flowers indoors. That, at least, is something. I generally do like fragrant flowers, the stronger the better. Though I think ‘French Bordello’ would make a really excellent name for an Oriental Lily cultivar.

    • July 2, 2015 at 7:48 pm

      Yes, it’s mainly an indoor issue although there have been a few landscape plants that (while in flower) can be an issue. I envy all the “In a Vase on Monday” entries, knowing that my options for same would be limited!

  5. July 3, 2015 at 4:26 pm

    I’m impressed that you know the whens and wheres of what bothers you. Of course, that makes sense if you have strong reactions. I’m very sympathetic to the conundrum loving the garden(ing),but not necessarily the fragrances. I find that cut flowers in general don’t bother me, though after a few days, I’m sniffling a bit. Into the compost they go!

  6. July 3, 2015 at 4:43 pm

    Gosh, that is a terrible sort of problem to have, and then add the food allergies as well! I have only just discovered how unpleasant Narcissus tazetta is, but other Narcissus are pleasant.
    Thankfully I don’t have any allergies, but my sister was allergic to swathes of things; she took a anti-histamine tablet called Polaramine (which is Dexchlorpheniramine) and it wasn’t a non-drowsy type. Eventually she became used to it, so its drowsy affects were minimal…I’m not sure if it’s available in the US, but it worked wonders for her

    • July 3, 2015 at 6:31 pm

      I literally “grew up on” chlorpheniramine maleate which is sold in the USA as ChlorTrimeton; was given it 2x a day, every day for the first 16 years of my life. When I stopped taking it, I was able to wake up easily for the first time ever! There’s no way I could drive while taking it, so I reserve it for the very rare accidental exposure very-bad reaction – which is probably a good thing, now that a large study has linked this drug to an increased risk of Alzheimers even if taken daily for as few as three years. I’m hoping that the fact that I took it in childhood (even though for far too long) will save me from a doomed old age — the study did state that the risk is greatest for those over 65 who take it daily. All the same, I’d have to be horribly miserable in order to consider taking even one at this stage of my life, LOL

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